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Authors: James E. McGreevey

The Confession

BOOK: The Confession
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The Confession


When the mind is less amenable to instruction and cannot be cured by milder means, why should it not be helped by having a dose of poverty and disgrace and general ruin—dealing with evil by evil?



political career collapsed, I was helping my wife, Dina, tuck our daughter into bed. Well, not helping, exactly. Even as I stood in the bedroom doorway watching my family, my ear was glued to a cell phone. Through the phone came the voice of a former employee named Golan Cipel. In a spectacular lapse of judgment, I had put Golan on my payroll while at the same time initiating a secret sexual relationship with him.

A few weeks earlier, both arrangements had ended badly, after press questions about his qualifications reached critical mass. Golan still hadn't recovered, and he had taken to calling me day and night to ask for his job back. I listened to him tirelessly—in part because I wanted to help him if I could, but mostly because I still loved him. But there was no way I could do what he wanted.

I loved Golan Cipel, a handsome and bright man a few years my junior, and I wanted him to be happy. But I was a married man, a father, and the governor of New Jersey. There was no chance he could rejoin my administration.

I had no reason to believe that Dina suspected my affair with Golan, or even the fact that I was gay. She probably already knew I didn't love her anymore, not in the way a man loves his wife. It had been a long time since we'd last been intimate. Lately, what drove us forward had been little more than the momentum of a public life.

Maybe unconsciously I wanted to bring it all to a head that night. How else can I explain why I answered Golan's phone call in her presence? The
longer I stood in that doorway watching my wife and daughter and listening to my former lover on the phone, the closer my world came to imploding. Nothing I told him mollified his pain, which I believe had more to do with his stalled career in government than with our failed affair. He missed me, I felt sure, mostly because he missed having access to power.

“My life is over,” he was saying. The bad press, he claimed, had ruined his reputation. “Nobody is supporting me out here.”

“We'll get through this, Golan,” I assured him. “This is the big leagues. You're going to get knocks.”

Dina had a rule about not interrupting our daughter's time with work calls, and as I struggled to get off the phone, I watched her growing increasingly angry. But then I saw a light bulb flick on in her eyes. She tucked Jacqueline into her covers and pushed past me in a rage, just as I was hanging up.

After we were safely out of Jacqueline's earshot, she turned and glared at me.

“This whole thing is ridiculous,” she said.

I knew exactly what she meant. “What thing?” I asked anyway.

She walked back toward me, in the darkened hallway, until we were close enough for her to study my face. “Are you gay?”

All my life I had dreaded that question. Others had asked it, and I can't think of a time when I lied affirmatively about my sexuality, but I lied every day by omission and obfuscation. And I allowed others to lie for me. My marriage to Dina was a major part of that lie; that much I knew consciously. As our years together ticked by, I found it harder and harder to deny the truth. Being gay is a fundamental part of my being—the core of who I've always been, and the thing I had repressed and run from all my life.

For a brief moment I thought I could stop running that day. But I didn't have the nerve to tell my wife the truth. Instead I said nothing.


of public life, I have always approached the limelight with extreme caution. Not that I kept my personal life off-limits; rather, the personal life I put on
display was a blend of fact and fiction. Dishonesty creates not only a lack of truth but a tangle of truths. I invented overlapping narratives about who I was, and contrived backstories that played better not just in the ballot box but in my own mind. And then, to the best of my ability, I tried to be the man in those stories.

In this way I'm not at all unique. Inauthenticity is endemic in American politics today. Those who would be leaders are all too often tempted to become what we think you want us to be—not leading at all, but following our best guess at public opinion. We tailor our public positions to reflect poll results and consultants' advice, then feed that data back to you in flattering ways. Everything from the clothing we wear to the places we vacation is selected data for political gain; even the food we eat is chosen with strategic calculation. The public square has never been so clamorous with deception.

This is, in fact, the defining characteristic of American political life today, and it is a dangerous slippery slope. For too many politicians winning has become the end goal of politics, trumping both ideology and ethics. An ambitious politician quickly learns, as I did, to countenance and even sponsor fundamentally corrupt behavior while insulating himself, for as long as he can, behind a buffer of deniability. I'm not talking about criminal misconduct—the kind of thing that leads to the occasional political corruption scandal. I'm talking about the hundreds of ways that politicians—or their representatives—can push the envelope on ethics, morals, and truth in our quest for power. In my experience, ethical compromises are not just a shortcut to office; for all but the wealthy, they are all but compulsory. The political backrooms where I spent much of my career were just as benighted as my personal life, equally crowded with shadowy strangers and compromises, truths I hoped to deny. I lived not in one closet but in many.

Even this is not uncommon. In the months since I resigned my office and my public trust, I have learned how the pressures of society seem to force so many of us into deep denial and disintegrated lives. Many people have confided in me about their own struggles for authenticity, whether in their jobs, their marriages, or their spiritual lives. Like me, they felt their sense of self fracture beneath the pressures of social conformity, feeling helpless to reverse their course even as they longed for the courage to do so.
At times, I've wondered if we're a nation of individuals careening down the wrong highway.

The true story of my life—what the composer Ned Rorem called “the cinema of myself”—had no connection with the script I polished for public consumption. And it was a cinema with no audience but one. It seems ridiculous to me now, but in all those years I never once spoke the word
about myself. Not in a heart-to-heart with a friend, not in a therapy session, not even in a sexual liaison, of which there were plenty. Not even to Golan. Even in private, we never gave words to our love affair; we called it “this,” or simply “us.” I once told him, standing in the governor's mansion, “I would leave all this for you.” But neither of us ever used the word

Oh, I knew it was my word, my reality. I have been certain almost all my life that God made me different, and at least since the age of thirteen I have been coping with this circumstance by not coping with it—by adopting artifices, changing myself rather than the world that would not embrace me. I chose the coward's route, courting girlfriends as a teenager and an adult, carrying on misguided romances for theatrical effect, marrying two women who deserved better. And in my private moments I mined every book I could find on homosexuality, not for affirmation but for tricks to use in curbing my desires. In other words, I
my homosexuality. Or thought I did.

Many people my age—born late in the baby boom—long ago came to terms with being gay and have thrived despite daunting obstacles. Moreover, in the past thirty years they have transformed the culture in ways large and small. Mine is the generation that built a mighty gay rights movement. That battled AIDS. That turned the stereotype of the married, blackmailed homosexual into the mainstream characters of
Will & Grace.
And that left behind such beautiful legacies as
Becoming a Man,
Paul Monette's searing memoir of identity and community, which I only discovered after my own troubles, when he was already dead.

Yet through most of these years I lived at arm's length from myself, unable to use my self-knowledge to live an honest life. I will say in my defense that it's an awful thing to expect a child of thirteen to pit himself against everything he holds dear—from his outsized ambitions to his beloved
family and the church of his salvation—for the sake of something so small as private happiness. I could not do it at thirteen, and once I had started down the path of self-denial, I saw no alternative but to stay the course. But the result was that I became the married, blackmailed homosexual that I reviled. And for too many years I did nothing to stop it.

There were moments—at nineteen and twenty-one, here and there in my thirties and forties—when the ripping misery of this life became too great, moments when I thought about “becoming gay” and all that that entails. In the end, though, sheer willpower always brought me back to the community I cherished, the bike paths of Carteret, New Jersey, where I grew up, and the precincts of Trenton, where there were no gay lawmakers, just heterosexuals and me. I lived those years in constant fear of discovery, a flutter of pure panic skating constantly on the lining of my diaphragm. I never forgot for a minute that I was what my childhood friends mocked, what I thought my parents would reject—what my loving God supposedly condemned to limitless suffering. I didn't need overt hostilities to know they were all around me. I stayed within the bounds of the culture I was born into—those borders like the invisible pet fences that train a dog to stay close to home by promising electric shocks if he ventures beyond the property line. I sat on the porch of my lonely self-denigration, sure of nothing but the perils in the yard.


saying. Looking back, I realize how often in my life the voices of prejudice emanated not from the prejudiced outside world but from my own mind, bent against me.

During my first run for governor, in 1997, I remember sitting in the backseat of a campaign car as it pushed north along the beautiful Garden State Parkway, and glancing exhaustedly out the window to see one of those enormous green parkway signs welcoming the river of cars. In a moment of wishful fantasy, I looked up and saw, or imagined I saw, my own name—not the name of Christine Todd Whitman, the sitting governor I was running to unseat—at the bottom of the sign. Yet this was no happy hallucination:
across the daydreamed billboard, I saw, someone had spray-painted the word

I shook my head to clear the image, but it didn't go away, and I broke into a cold sweat. Of course this was nothing more than a trick of the imagination, but its truth was inescapable.
I might be gaining in the polls,
I thought.
I might one day be governor, maybe even run for president. But no matter how I lived my life, I would still be a despicable thing at my core.

If I had been handed, as a teenager, the groaning platter of secrets and half-truths that would feed me till middle age, I never would have had the courage to pretend to be heterosexual. But I can't imagine I would have pursued my heart's desires forthrightly, either, such was my self-hatred. Twice I contemplated the priesthood; more often, suicide. It was only when I stood beside my beautiful wife and loving parents one August morning at the New Jersey State House and declared, “My truth is that I am a gay American,” that my stomach's alarm system finally defused and my solar plexus went still for the first time in my life.

The writer Armistead Maupin once said, “My only regret about being gay is that I repressed it for so long. I surrendered my youth to the people I feared when I could have been out there loving someone. Don't make that mistake yourself. Life's too damn short.” He was right: I lost forty-seven years.

The life I've led since then has been truthful, but it hasn't all been easy. In the weeks after announcing my affair with Golan, my career and my marriage slipped away, both excruciating losses. And one cold fall afternoon in the last days of my term, I glanced out the window of the governor's sedan to see one of those big green parkway signs bearing my name. This was no hallucination: across it someone had actually painted
I watched the sign pass by the window as if in slow motion, stunned to see my dark daydream brought to life. The thing I feared most in the world had happened to me—my once-private truth now escaped from my imagination into the real world.

And all I felt was grace.

Mine has been a long, trying, and sadly common journey, and one that's still just beginning. I have a long way to go before finding the genuine
. Living an authentic life is surprisingly challenging, I have found; the tricks and shortcuts of my old life protected me from a lot of difficult truths, which now I must face without flinching. As painful as that is, it is also spiritually rewarding in a way I have never known before. I'm rebuilding my relationship with God, the greatest victory to come from this defeat.

In the process, I've had to reforge bonds with all of my old friends; to my surprise and joy, they've all stayed with me for the ride. Being honest about myself has not cost me a single friendship. On the contrary, I feel closer now to everyone in my life than ever before, blessed with their love and respect in a way I never recognized.

I haven't yet fully integrated my new sense of relief with my history of fear. I am still very cautious about making decisions about my personal and professional life. Many friends and family members have advised me to stay focused on the moment rather than dwelling on the past. There is not a great appetite for my memoir among this group. My father, whose love for me has never wavered, recently mailed me a photocopy of the dictionary page containing the word
concerned with what I might include in these pages. “Please remember the words of St. Paul,” his accompanying note said, “‘the greatest of these is charity.'”

BOOK: The Confession
12.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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